Thursday, May 29, 2008

Corpus Christi

Community matters! Over the past few weeks, a few reminders of this fundamental truth have crossed my consciousness: in these instances, in the guise of two good books, a questionable movie – and now a contribution to the blog from within the St. James’ community. The movie, Into the Wild’s insight by numbers (aka, the Dick and Jane manual to self-awareness) reminds us of the critical role played by those someone(s) with whom to share our life experiences. The writer, E.M. Forster’s opening epithet – “Only Connect” – somewhat more articulately expresses the same sentiment in the novel, Howard’s End. Andrew O’Hagen makes a strong argument against community being simply “a club for resentment” or a “background against which to measure one’s superiority” in his recent novel, Be Near Me, as his disenchanted priest struggles to make sense of his alienation in an, at times, hostile and rejecting Scottish village.

The St. James’ parishioner’s journey into Toronto’s heart through the city’s varied and frequently challenging neighborhoods triggered some thoughts that they wanted to share with our community. I encourage any who wish to contribute to St. James’ ‘community voice’ through the forum of our blog to do so.    David Howard

Corpus Christi

Last trip to Toronto, I made a mental note: Gardiner ramp off 427 down to one lane for the summer; find alternative route. Last Sunday, as I approached the GTA on the 401, I decided to let ‘Judy’ Garmin, our onboard computerized GPS navigation system, direct me down to the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene using Eglinton Avenue.

Our ‘Judy’ is a good gal but she does not take well to overriding her directions: “Recalculating”, she snarls as I decide not to take the Dixie off-ramp. I convinced her, through deceptive programming, that I wanted to get to Plant World on Eglinton and then proceed to Manning Avenue, in the heart of the Annex, where Saint Mary Mag’s is situated.

As I proceeded down Eglinton, I was given opportunity to catch glimpses of towering apartment buildings where small villages of people share homes. One of the singers in the St. Mary’s choir faithfully twice a week, once for choir practice and once for the Sunday mass, travels from one of these massive buildings down to the Annex using the TTC- she had to give up her car in order to make ends meet as a single mom of two teenagers. It is a 40 minute trip one-way using public transit. She rarely misses practice or mass.

Judy takes me down Jane to Dundas. There are no more huge apartment buildings; the streetscape reminds me of small-town S.W. Ontario. The difference between Stratford and this part of Toronto is definitely demographics...we WASPS are a visible minority; the middle-class is the marginal economic group, too. Roman Catholic churches noticeably bear the scars of graffiti. Store-front churches bear names like The Church of the Good Prophet (the accountant in me sees the sad pun...this church was the paradox...the Church of the no-so Good Profit, as it was boarded up and had a For Lease sign hanging askew on its curtained door). People on the streets look tired, rough, angry and dejected, despite the glorious sunshine and first real warmth in weeks.

Dundas to Dupont: abandoned and decaying factories look like make-shift shelters for street people. Sad and tired houses have little shrines to the Virgin Mary as focal points in their postage stamp front gardens. Corner stores have this summer's gardening stock on the street. There are more WASP-ish types on the street...mostly young people wearing vogue clothing. In a ridiculous juxtaposition, out of nowhere, a Jaguar dealership holds court.

Dupont to Manning: homes are huddled so tightly together that it appears that owners could shake hands with each other by just hanging over their porches. The street is tree-lined and many folk are out putting their distinctive stamps onto their gardens. Speed bump after speed bump, stop sign after stop sign, I finally arrive at St. Mary Mag’s. Wonderful-my favourite parking spot in front of the school under the ancient maple tree is available. As I walk towards the church, I hear the brass quintet playing Renaissance music out on the front lawn. Today is a feast day-The Feast of Corpus Christi. As a Lute-pisker or Ang-lutheran as we are known in Canada, this feast day doesn’t mean anything to me. My son, a member of this parish, strongly urged me to come today for the festivities. “It is a very special day, Mum; you gotta come!”

Corpus Christi celebrates the Eucharist, unbounded by the Passion of Holy Week. This feast day is primarily due to the petitions of a 13th century Augustinian nun. Eucharist is derived from the Greek language and means thankfulness, gratitude, giving thanks.

The centrepiece of the celebration is an outdoor processional. Starting in the church’s nave, we follow six little girls, the clergy and wardens. We are followed by the choir and brass players. And we are to sing. I must quickly decide whether or not I will join in. This is not something an introverted Ang-lutheran feels comfortable doing...takin’ it to the streets. I throw caution to the wind and file in. We leave the church with the organ in full voice loudly encouraging us to carry the melody out to the street. As we sing, the little girls are tossing rose petals into the air that slowly descend to the asphalt. People in their front gardens stop working and look up to watch the parade. I have the good fortune to be between two delightful singers...a tenor and a baritone. A soprano is just behind us...we have an impromptu quartet that sounds quite good. At Harbord, the police escorts on their bicycles squint at us behind their reflective sunglasses as they hold back the car traffic. We turn at Euclid and make our way back to the church. In between hymns (we sing seven hymns in total), it is quiet like I’ve never experienced in Toronto...a peaceful quiet except for the song of what sounds like dozens of birds. They seem to be responding to us in kind.

As I walk on rose petals, down the centre of a downtown Toronto street, singing to my heart’s content, I realize how powerful this experience has been for me. How grateful I am to be included in a community that has been celebrating the Eucharist twice a week. How thankful I am that I can publicly display my faith in a country that will protect me as I do this. How fortunate I am that I live in a beautiful community, own a comfortable home and have access to the family car (with its navigation system) for my every need and whim.

In the Muslim countries, a muezzin calls the people to prayer five times a day from a minaret. Many Christian churches celebrate the Eucharist daily. I used to view this as an extreme practice of one’s faith. As with most paradoxes, the obvious is absurd: in this age of more, we seem to have less. George Carlin the comedian says, “We’ve learned to make a living but not a life. We’ve multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom and hate too often.” The Eucharist reminds us to give thanks. By Luke’s account, at the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks. Perhaps, here is a new paradox: in these uber-busy times, we need to stop for the Eucharist. Maybe the best thing we can do for our egos, our souls, our family and our community, is to stop and ritualistically give thanks by partaking in the Eucharist with full awareness of all that we have to be grateful for. And, perhaps, once a week is not really enough; but once a week is a good start.

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